The history and development of Hills would probably be much different without the railroad. The same could be said for our business. The railroad connection greatly encouraged the growth of our business, specifically our fertilizer division.
Our dealings in fertilizer date back to the late 50’s – early 60’s. At that time we sold a small amount of product from Virginia Carolina Fertilizer. They supplied us with 80 pound bags of 3-6-12 via rail.
Interestingly, this product had tobacco stems in it which soaked up the moisture and kept the fertilizer from hardening. Additionally, we had bagged ammonium nitrate with analysis of 33.5-0-0 from Spencer Chemical Company; also received by rail.
When the Rock Island Railroad discontinued their coal business around 1965, Eldon purchased the buildings. After converting the concrete bins, we now had the capacity to store 400-500 ton of bulk fertilizer. As luck would have it, WR Grace had over purchased 41% nitrogen from Marseilles, IL and needed to find a home for it. Luckily, WR Grace had a flat freight rate on the Rock Island Railroad. While analyzing the rail system, their sales rep, Ted Cowens, came across Hills and approached us with an opportunity. This relationship kick-started our dry and liquid business. “We are always grateful for WR Grace and the opportunities they provided us in the fertilizer business,” said Ron Stutsman.
At that time, they were the oldest and one of the largest fertilizer companies in the US. In fact, when they started in the 1800s, they sold guano (bat manure) from the caves of Chile as fertilizer.
The 41% nitrogen arrived in 100-ton rail cars. It had 15-20 pounds of pressure, which required us to use pressure equipment. WR Grace also provided us with our first bulk fertilizer; 10-10-10, 15-10-10, and 20-10-10. The addition of a blender a few years later allowed us to blend mixes of 0-46-0, 0-0-60, and 33.5-0-0.
In our first year of side dressing, we had two car loads of nitrogen and just one applicator. Growers allowed us to test 40 rows of their fields; they were thrilled with the increase in yield. In the second year, we were side dressing entire fields and used a total of 10 car loads for the season. During this time, all side dressing was custom applied with 5 row machines featuring a 400-gallon tank.
As our fertilizer business continued to grow, we started construction for the scale house and initial fertilizer plant in the mid 1970’s. The contractor for this project was John Mast’s father, our current VP of Transportation. This fertilizer shed held approximately 3,000 ton of dry fertilizer. We also added another track of rail so we could still unload fertilizer rail cars.
Around 1990 the wholesale and retail mix plants went up. Prior to these additions, mixing was done outside with the controls located in a small yard shed. Moving this process under roof certainly increased efficiency as well as made it more comfortable for employees.
Although these facilities allowed us to serve our customers, we experienced dramatic growth in 2010; we received fertilizer deliveries daily to remain stocked! To capitalize on larger quantities at lower off-season prices to benefit our customers, we built on to the South side of the dry fertilizer shed. This new addition gave us an additional 10,000 ton of storage.
We’ve come a long way from our early days in the fertilizer business, from using very low analysis products to more complex mixes and of course new technologies like soil sampling and variable rate application. It’s exciting to see how the industry and our own operation has advanced over the past 60 years. We can only imagine what the next 60 will bring!